Delusional in Durban

Reason's science correspondent sends a first dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference.


Durban, South Africa—Delegates from 190 countries have gathered in this seaside resort town to see if they can salvage anything from nearly 20 years of climate change negotiations. The prospects are dim. A review of the amalgam of draft negotiating texts [PDF] released this past weekend at the half-way mark of this 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), suggests that few delegates are even trying to pretend that these negotiations are going anywhere. Some countries are making demands for greenhouse gas emissions cuts that are about as credible as Soviet Five-Year plans.

First, some recent history. In 2009, climate change militants anticipated that the Copenhagen COP-15 would be the triumphant culmination of 17 years of climate negotiations. The crowning achievement would be the adoption of an even more comprehensive and legally binding treaty than the Kyoto Protocol which is set to expire by 2012. The new more stringent version of the Kyoto Protocol would have set deeper targets for greenhouse gas reductions.

From the point of view of many global warming activists, there was every reason to believe that the Copenhagen conference would be a "success." After all, the loathed George W. Bush had been replaced by the enlightened Barack Obama and the United States House of Representatives had finally passed a cap-and-trade scheme to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. So sure was the world that Copenhagen would be the decisive moment in international climate diplomacy, 126 heads of government and state flew in ready to sign off on the momentous agreement. Instead, the Copenhagen conference completely collapsed. Why? Chiefly, because China refused to play.

In fact, 2009 was the year that the burgeoning Chinese economy surpassed the United States as the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases. Since 1992, when the UNFCCC was adopted, China's economy has grown from just $422 billion to nearly $6 trillion today, making up about 13 percent the world's entire GDP. When China signed onto the UNFCCC it was included as a poor developing country with no obligations with regard to cutting its emissions. Twenty years later China is no longer poor, yet its leaders still insist that it be treated as a developing country. China will not commit to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions any time soon.

President Obama recognized that it was politically impossible to get Americans to adopt limits on greenhouse gases unless China and other big developing countries also agreed to some kind of binding limits. China said no and the conference collapsed. To save face, the big countries hastily met behind the scenes to cobble together the Copenhagen Accord consisting of legally unenforceable goals to limit greenhouse gas emissions and a promise to give poor countries some climate change aid in the future. Then, embarrassed by the fiasco, the 126 world leaders all raced to their airplanes without even bothering to take the traditional "class photo" that is normally an obligatory ritual at the end of such prominent international confabs.

Chastened climate change delegates and dispirited activists convened in 2010 for COP-16 in Cancun, Mexico, to sift through the Copenhagen wreckage. The modest result of COP-16 was to get both developed and developing countries to list officially their Copenhagen climate change goals in a United Nations document. In addition, conferees agreed to set up a process for devising a bureaucratic structure for a Green Fund that would supposedly distribute climate change aid amounting to $100 billion annually by 2020 from rich countries to poor countries.

COP-16 also set out a "vision" in which countries "recognized" that deep cuts in greenhouse emissions are necessary to keep average global temperature increases to below 2.0° Celsius, the pre-industrial average. Keep in mind that the average is believed to have already increased by 0.8°C. Again, the United States refused to commit to any binding treaties unless big developing countries—China, Brazil, India—agreed to do so. And again, China refused to do so. Burned by the bad publicity of the Copenhagen flop, most world leaders had better things to do than bask on the beaches of Cancun. The Kyoto Protocol, much beloved by European Union climate negotiators, was left hanging.

A week ago, the annual climate change diplomatic cycle convened here in Durban. Global interest in COP-17 goings-on can be gauged by the fact that the media contingent is half what it was in Copenhagen and only 12 heads of state—mostly from Africa—are planning to drop by. Even the activist contingent seems dispirited. When nobody important is paying much attention and nothing significant is likely to be at stake, then, as the Durban draft negotiations documents show, even diplomats can and will say any silly thing that they'd like.

Issued by the chair of COP-17, the negotiating draft is "an intermediate product presenting work in progress, a Saturday snapshot of where we are at the end of this first week of COP 17." Consider some of the proposed cuts in emissions that are being demanded of developed countries. One of the more moderate proposal demandswith proposed phrases in bracketsthat "developed countries as a group should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions…[by][at least][40][45][50] per cent from 1990 levels by 2020."

To make it simple, let's take a look at just how a 50 percent cut in U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide might be achieved. Carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas released by burning fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. burned enough fossil fuels in 2009 to emit 5.2 billion tons [PDF] of carbon dioxide, up from 4.7 billion tons 1990. A 50 percent cut in fossil fuels below 1990 levels would mean cutting annual emissions by roughly 2.8 billion tons in nine years. One way to achieve this would be to shut down completely the 70 percent of America's electric power generation that is fueled by coal and natural gas, plus removing from the roads nearly half of America's 250 million vehicle fleet.

But if that proposed emissions cut is not ambitious (read: delusional) enough consider the draft proposal that demands that rich countries "undertake ambitious national economy-wide binding targets for quantified emission reduction commitments of at least 50 per cent of their domestic greenhouse gas emissions during the period 2013 to 2017 and by more than 100 per cent before 2040, compared with their 1990 levels." Instead of trashing and trying to replace 70 percent of U.S. electric power generation and half its vehicle fleet in nine years, get Americans to sign a treaty that commits them to doing that in as little as two years.

One more proposal simply requires that rich countries commit to cutting their "greenhouse gas emissions more than 100 per cent by 2040." One way to achieve cuts of "more than 100 percent" might be to shut down all American industry, transport, fossil fuel power generation, and cover the landscape with carbon dioxide absorbing trees.

T.S. Eliot wrote that "humankind cannot stand very much reality." This apothegm apparently applies to some climate change negotiators here in Durban who, when reality becomes too much, retreat to fantasies conjured by their rhetoric. The likelihood of draft proposals that require deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts by rich countries being adopted here in Durban is exactly nil.

Note: This is the first daily dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban. Tomorrow I will seek to gauge better the mood of the activists here in Durban. I will be reporting from the conference for the rest of the week.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.